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1887.] Henry E. Shepherd, 231 



XI. — A Study of Lord Macaulay s English. 
By HENRY E. SHEPHERD, LL. D., 

PRESIDENT OF THE COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON, S. C. 

Nearly thirty years have elapsed since the death of Lord 
Macaulay (December, 1859), a period sufficient to have wit- 
nessed the rise, the decline, and the decay of many reputations 
less brilliant than his own. (The year 1859 was fruitful in the 
death of eminent men of letters : H allam, DeQuincey, Irving, 
Prescott, Macaulay.) It is the fate even of the finest genius 
to incur detraction, and in our era, Macaulay has been the 
special victim of critics. He has provoked the polished 
cynicism of Mr. Matthew Arnold, the cautious censure of 
Bishop Stubbs, and received only the qualified approbation of 
one of his most discriminating biographers, the late Rector of 
Lincoln College. Save his nephew, Mr. Trevelyan, and Mr. 
Edward A. Freeman, 1 few writers of our time are just in 
their appreciation of his genius, or in their estimate of his im- 
press upon the character of our language. Yet his influence 
upon the fortunes of English speech was never more potent than 
at present, and may be discovered by the critical student in many 
phases of our literature where its agency was not suspected. — 
Let us endeavor to trace in detail some of the sources of Lord 
Macaulay's diction, some of the secret springs that impelled 
into activity the most perspicuous and fascinating prose style 
which has appeared in modern English literature. 

At the time of Macaulay's birth (October 1800), the great 
Romantic movement coincident with the last decades of the 
Georgian era, was approaching its maturity — Byron was twelve 
years old; Coleridge had produced his most characteristic 
poems; Tennyson was yet unborn; the great apostle of Ro- 
manticism issued the first of his three supreme efforts in 1805 ; 
the triumphs of Keats and Shelley were still in the future. — 
The poetic diction of the eighteenth century was yielding to the 
theory of the spontaneous, in the political as in the intellectual 
sphere, old things were passing away, all things were becoming 
new. In this era and amid these quickening influences, Macau- 
la y was born. To trace the genesis of a great author's diction is an 



iSee 'Methods of Historical Study/ pages 105-6. 



232 Lord Macaulay s English. [Vol. in. 

instructive and delightful task. In the case of Lord Macaulay, 
we have the assistance of Trevelyan's admirable biography, 
perhaps slightly colored by the partial tone of devoted affection, 
yet accurate in detail and fascinating in treatment. Strange 
as it may be, Macaulay seems to have had lhtle sympathy with 
the dominant literary tendencies of his own age. His tastes and 
affinities identified him with the eighteenth century, he studied 
the literary creations of the Addisonian time with assiduous and 
affectionate care, and in the essay upon Addison, we have a dim 
intimation of the brilliant picture he would have added to the 
richness of our literature, had he been spared to complete his 
'History of England.' Yet the strongest and most abiding in- 
fluences are sometimes those whose agency is not suspected, or 
whose existence is least apparent. The revolutionary fervor of 
the period coincident with Macaulay's youth imparted a superb 
glow to a style formed by the delicate observance of aesthetic 
and artistic principles. It relieved it from the possible danger of 
degenerating into cold and inanimate rhetoric, by infusing some 
measure of that romantic ardor and creative energy which marked 
the "spacious times" of Byron, Shelley, Scott and Keats. 
The eloquence of Burke, assuming a richer coloring with the 
flight of years, was an important influence in the formation of 
Macaulay's diction. The style of Burke, as illustrated in 
many passages of his 'Abridgment of English History' (a work 
whose rare merits, philosophic wisdom and wealth of learning 
should have earned for it a more extended recognition than has 
thus far been accorded it) is suggestive and anticipatory of many 
characteristic chapters in the ' History of England.' In order to 
illustrate the accuracy of this general statement by concrete ex- 
amples, we have only to observe carefully the peculiar rhythm 
and cadence of numerous passages from the 'Abridgment,' 
and mark their resemblance to certain passages in the 
' History of England,' which have become part of the classic 
riches of our tongue. — The rhetorical inspiration communicated 
by the diligent study of Burke, the unconscious quickening re- 
ceived from the dominant creative impulses of his era, the fas- 
tidious care bestowed upon the Addisonian age, together with 
the influence of that mode of classical training once prevalent 
in the Universities, in which scrupulous regard was had to the 
inculcation of literary form rather than to a technical and ex- 
acting philological study — these are the principal elements in 



1887.] Henry E. Shepherd, 233 

the evolution of that prose diction which has constituted one of 
the literary phenomena of our century. 

When we pass to the consideration of Macaulay's descriptive 
faculty, we find that the secret of his strength in this respect is 
largely due to the inspiration and example of Sir Walter 
Scott. It is to Sir Walter that both Carlyle and Mac- 
aulay are indebted for their power of calling back the banished 
ages. It is with the style and diction of Macaulay that we are 
more especially concerned, and the investigating of his mode of 
historic presentation is scarcely within the scope of a philological 
discussion. The student of our literary development will re- 
member that the growth of Macaulay's power as an essayist, 
for it was in this capacity that he first acheived renown, is coin- 
cident with the period that saw the decline of the Georgian era, 
and the reversion to the supremacy of prose, as well as the rise 
of modern physical science and of comparative philology. The 
'Essay upon Milton' (1825,) first drew the eye of the literary 
world to Macaulay. Byron died in the year preceding (1824 ;) 
Keats and Shelley in 1821-22; Walter Scott in 1832. 
The year was also signalized by the death of Goethe and 
Cuvier, and by the passage of the great Reform Bill. 

The style of Macaulay was maturing throughout the period 
embraced by the decline of poetry and the reaction towards 
prose. Yet it was a prose which, with notable exceptions, was 
marked by hardness and coldness of style or colored by passages 
of unwonted glow and brilliance, such as suffuse the sermons of 
Newman and the portraitures of Ruskins. The classical and 
artistic nature of Macaulay, stimulated by the study of Addi- 
sonian models, was too strongly developed to succumb either 
to the romantic tone of the departing era, or to the marked and 
powerful vein of prose-poetry which was so conspicuous a feature 
of the incoming literary dispensation. Still, his language absorb- 
ed some rays of that poetic brilliance, as the famous description 
of the Puritan character in the " Essay on Milton " abundantly 
attests. We find, then, as the basis of his style, the classical or 
artistic element which, so far as our own literature is concerned, 
reaches its most graceful expression in the Augustan age of 
Anne. By the blending of these elements, the classical or 
artistic, and the romantic, which formed an unconscious inspira- 
tion, together with the quickening power of Burke's majestic 
rhetoric, was matured the literary character of Macaulay. He 



234 Lord Macaulay 's English. [Vol. in. 

seemed to "take occasion by the hand," and there is no just 
cause of surprise that the resultant of such forces should have 
been an English style, the charm and power of which will last 
as long as the memory of our race and language. 

The investigation of that peculiar phase of our speech known 
in popular phrase as Euphuism, has a fascination for the student 
of our literary development. It has been traced to many lands 
and to varied influence : to Spain, to Italy and to the Platonic 
philosophy. A more rational solution would perhaps explain it 
as a characteristic at some period of its history of nearly every 
language, an intimate tendency rather than the resultant of ex- 
ternal forces. In its relation to the English tongue, Euphuism 
seems to have been an unconscious forecaste or anticipation of 
the modern prose style, which developed in English during the 
second half of the seventeenth century. Its charm lay largely in 
its novelty, for it was a departure from the orthodox standard or 
periodic sentence of which the lighter Elizabethan world had 
grown weary. It inculcated the graces of literary form by ex- 
ample, and the brilliant antithesis of Macaulay displays in its 
perfected forms some of the characteristic traits of our Elizabethan 
Euphuism. 

A minute investigation of the inmost life of a literary epoch 
reveals the geminal or seminal forces whose matured vigor will 
be apparent in the following age. In the complex types of the 
Elizabethan time, may be discovered the dim beginnings of every 
succeeding development of our language and our literature. The 
philosophic student of our linguistic growth will encounter no 
difficulty in recognizing in the much travestied Euphuism of 
Elizabethan times, the prelude to the antithesis of Macaulay. 
The fascination of his diction is the wonder and the despair of 
his imitators. It is a concrete illustration of Quintilian's ideal 
literary artist, he who not only writes so that he may be under- 
stood, but that he cannot be misunderstood. The lucidity of 
his language is one of the principal sources of his power. The 
mind in its habitual state averse from continuous or prolonged 
tension, is taken captive by the cadence of his periods and the 
judgment yields an almost unconscious assent to his bold 
generalizations and graphic delineations, however they may 
conflict with inherited prejudices or transmitted opinions. The 
investigation of his language would prove an attractive study to 
the critic who approaches it from the stand-point of musical 



1887.] Henry E. Shepherd, 235 

harmony. It was no native sensibility that quickened the ex- 
quisite melody of his phrases. 

That English is marred by an exuberance of cacophony is a 
truth of which every teacher of the delicate art of composition 
is painfully conscious. So notable a feature of our tongue is 
cacophony, that a truly melodious diction is rare of attainment. 
It is one of the merits of Macaulay to have shaped out of 
contending forces, — in a season of linguistic transition when 
revolt was assailing artistic principles and unfaltering confidence 
in the stimulus of inspiration was superseding the painful pro- 
cesses, and the fast'dious diligence of Pope and Addison, — a 
style in which are fused by a happy process of synthesis the 
distinctive charm and the distinctive strength of two great 
epochs in our literary history. The rich development of prose 
poetry that followed in the wake of the Georgian era in no 
measure disturbed the symmetry of his style or marred the 
purity of his diction. The artist reigned supreme, however 
much of his golden coloring may have been reflected like some 
after-glow from the splendor of the preceding day. No trust in 
the ''spontaneous," no theory of inspiration quickening latent 
energy into dynamic force, modified that affectionate assiduity 
or abated that painful concentration by which he developed 
those prose harmonies that have become wrought into the 
texture and essence of our language. 

Among writers of prose, Macaulay's position is similar to 
that of Tennyson among masters of verse. In each the artistic 
nature is the controlling power, but the fastidious mechanism of 
the Laureate was elaborated amid the cold and sedate environ- 
ment of the Victorian day, that of Macaulay was at least 
quickened amid the glow and passion of the Georgian era. In 
the earlier works, his characteristic style is distinctly formed, and 
in the history of his literary evolution we have a refutation 
of that criticism which deals with so delicate a product of 
genius as literary form, as if i f were regulated by arbitrary rule 
or determined by established convention. The harmony of his 
diction is distinctly foreshadowed in the rathe efforts of the 
Cambridge undergraduate, whence it expounds and develops 
until it ripens into the flower of perfect art in the serene 
splendor of his matured greatness. The moral law of art, the 
creed of literary purity, has rarely been maintained with 
more devoted faithfulness by any historian of any age. Upon 



236 Lord Macaulay 1 s English. [Vol. in. 

this, rests his assured claim to perpetual remembrance. It is a 
cause of regret that the complex environment, the severe 
nervous tension, and paradoxical as it may seem, the wide em- 
bracing instrumentalities of common school machinery, should 
seriously disturb the conditions essential to the higher mode of 
literary culture. The inchoately formed mind, the typical pro- 
duct of the American school, is impatient of ideals and intolerant 
of idealists. Shakespeare and BenJonson were content with 
each others approbation and scorned the plaudits of the illiterate 
semi-savages for whose entertainment they wrote. The removes 
were vastly greater, Baconian philosophy, physical science, public 
school systems, all penetrating periodical literature, had not then 
leavened the whole lump and placed the idealist and the empiric, 
the scholar and the charlatan upon nearly coinciding planes in 
vulgar estimation. It "is the mob of gentlemen that read with 
ease," who disdain esoteric seclusion and shrink from mental 
effort that regulate and direct the tone and quality of modern 
literary production. Perhaps the saddest of all changes in our 
contemporary literature is the decadence of that scrupulous re- 
gard for structural beauty, the decline of aesthetic sensibility. 
The tendency has been marked since the death of Macaulay, 
and we may assume the period introduced by the American Civil 
War, as a convenient terminus a quo from which to date its violent 
and stimulated action. Irving and Prescott, the first of whom 
reproduced the genial graces of Addison, the second of whom 
was our acknowledged chief in the art of historic composition, 
passed away the same year with Macaulay, leaving no succes- 
sors in the charm of style, however much they may have been 
excelled in the technical elements of scientific accuracy and 
scholarly precision. 

Our modern school of philologists have, in disregard of 
literary form, sinned above all men that dwell upon the earth. 
The typical philologic style manifests that ripeness of corruption 
already referred to, which happily mocks at imitation, but retards 
the advance of philological acquisition by the uncouth and for- 
bidding guise in which it is commended to us. When the fulness 
of decline shall have been attained and the reaction against 
literary licenes sets in, as set in it must, from sheer satiety if from 
no more exalted impulse, the chastness of Macaulay's English 
will be estimated by a generation to whom the spirit of rational 
appreciation has returned and from whom the demon of literary 



1887.] Henry E. Shepherd. 237 

impurity has been cast out. His true greatness may be in the 
future — possibly in the remote future — but of his abiding fame 
there is no ground of reasonable doubt. In the sphere of the 
intellectual as in the domain of the spiritual, the eternal verities 
must prevail, renown gendered by sciolism cannot withstand the 
scrutiny of the greatest of innovators. Our own age has well 
nigh forgotten the grand lesson of fidelity to truth as embodied in 
literary form, and that at a time when the vision of Verulam is 
passing from imagination into objectivity, and man " is taking 
all knowledge for his province." — It is alleged by Harriet 
Martineau in her essay upon Macaulay, that he was lacking 
in sensibility and deficient in every element of the pathetic. The 
charge is refuted by the whole tenor of his life, by his "little un- 
remembered deeds of kindness and of love," by his "strong 
benevolence of soul," by the consecration of his energies to the 
welfare and happiness of others. 

I have endeavored to portray the literary character of Lord 
Macaulay, to discover the sources of his strength, the secret 
springs of his power, and the grounds upon which his claim to 
immortality must rest : (a detailed presentation of any one of 
these phases of the subject would involve a more elaborate dis- 
cussion than is consistent with the rational limits of a mere essay). 
Most especially have I endeavored to inculcate the lesson taught 
by his life and enforced by his example, the lesson of faithfulness 
to literature as an art, the maintenance of its purity and its ideality 
above all considerations of expediency or material aggrandize- 
ment. That the lesson is one of supreme import to our genera- 
tion and to our contemporary literature, cannot be too earnestly 
insisted upon or too emphatically presented. Such a life as 
Macaulay's is given for our instruction, if we will but take heed, 
if we will no longer be content merely to reach "the limits of a 
vulgar fate," while literary art is sacrificed to profligacy and 
literary virtue is led astray by sensationalism.